VOICE-OVER: How should we appreciate contemporary Chinese art? This deceptively simple question, in fact, touches upon a depth of factors outside the world of art. Perhaps you can find the answers in M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation.
M+ Sigg Collection contains over 1,000 works of contemporary Chinese art that encompass a broad range of styles and mediums. You can get a glimpse of new, sometimes radical approaches to artmaking that characterise the ethos of the Chinese art scene from the early 1970s to the 2000s. This remarkable flowering of experimental artistic practices in China is actually a reflection of the unprecedented transformation of the country that emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution and ventured into its reform and opening-up era and beyond.
This exhibition invites you not only to revisit the short history of the emergence of contemporary art in China and its conversations and impact on the global art scene, but also to reflect on the political, social, and economic metamorphosis that begot this cultural dynamism.
In this exhibition, you can see around 200 works from [the collections], exhibited in seven sections.
Section One: ‘Two Worlds: Main stream and Underground in the 1970s’. These are two essential dimensions of contemporary Chinese art, informing the operation and development of the system of artistic production. For decades since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Revolutionary Realism had been the official artistic language of the country.
During the Cultural Revolution, underground artist collectives like the No Name Group and the Stars Art Group turned their backs on Revolutionary Realism and took up Impressionism and Expressionism. The tug of war between these two worlds of art continued until their distinction became increasingly blurred after 2000.
PI LI: [Mandarin] The painting that we're looking at is Divert Water from the Milky Way Down. It was jointly created by two artists, Sun Guoqi and Zhang Hongzan, in 1974. It is a political propaganda painting, a work considered part of the mainstream values in China. It depicts a group of young workers building an aqueduct in an extremely cold and snowy area in the northeast. This work represents a very typical socialist realist political propaganda style. First, it is extraordinarily big in size. During a period of material deprivation in China, it was an extravagance to paint on such a large linen canvas. It adheres to many principles of classical painting. The main motivational, heroic figure is shown within one-third of the horizontal and vertical axes, which forms a golden ratio. We can see that the young people pushing things at the back expand outwards like a radiating sun, so it has a motivational, sunny style. Imagine doing such tough work in the extreme cold. How could the people wear such clean clothes, while everyone's face is filled with joy? So, this is a very idealised style. We can even see many political metaphors here. For example, the most motivational person must wear a red outfit to show off his motivational traits and style. This style was the mainstream artistic style in China from 1949 to after the Cultural Revolution.
Almost at the same time this work was created, we can see that another group of young artists was creating some interesting work. Let’s look at this very small work, created by a young person called Zhang Wei. He was not born into a politically fortunate family. When he was a child, his family was criticised, and he didn’t even have the opportunity to attend university. So, all of [these artists’] artworks were self-taught. Comparing these two works, the first prominent feature is that this work is especially small. What he painted was an outdoor scene devoid of people, seen from indoors. It’s quite different from the bustling, skyward motion of that work scene. We can see that this scene was perhaps painted at sunset; the indoor frame is quite dark, while the light outside is dim. There are no people in this work. It has a sad, melancholic feel. This work precisely captures the sense of bewilderment experienced during the Cultural Revolution by a young person with unfortunate family and personal circumstances who could not even attend university.
But these sorts of real emotions could not be publicly expressed in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution because everyone wanted to see idealised, motivational things. However, artists like Zhang Wei broke free of the principles of idealism and started expressing their feelings in a very authentic way. When people start paying attention to real individuals and real emotions, art begins to change. This marked another start of modernism for all of China.
VOICE-OVER: Section Two: ‘’85 New Wave’. A ground-breaking art movement was born in the mid-1980s as a result of the relaxed political atmosphere ushered in by reformist policies from 1978. The movement was part of the general cultural awakening of the 1980s. During this period, exhibitions of art from Europe and the United States toured to China, broadening artists’ cultural and intellectual horizons.
PI LI: [Mandarin] The work we are looking at here was created by Chinese artist Wang Guangyi in 1986, titled Post-Classical—Death of Marat. We can see this is a monochromatic work. If we only look at half of the image, it would feel very familiar. This is a work created by nineteenth-century French classical artist Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat. For Wang Guangyi, this is a conceptual duplication of the image of Marat.
All of Wang Guangyi's works represent the classic creative style of the ’85 New Wave, which is trying to adopt a rational perspective in looking at everything. This is because people were experiencing radical social changes during the ’85 New Wave, first with the reform and opening-up, and then with China beginning to study and become reacquainted with Western knowledge. Faced with the influx of information, artists spent more time thinking about how to digest and understand that information. In particular, most artists had special memories of their experience during the ten-year Cultural Revolution, so they were seeking new answers about history and culture. So, in this painting we can see there are no specific facial expressions or details. The artists seems to be analysing the specific meaning behind this image instead.
Two years later, Wang Guangyi continued to try using a rational perspective to analyse the intention of images. So this work, Mao [Zedong: Red Grid No. 2], is a portrait of Chairman Mao, but it is different from other portraits of Chairman Mao that we see in China. First, it is monochromatic. Second, there is a clearly demarcated grid. The monochromatic colour shows that Wang Guangyi started with a rational mind when looking at the symbol of Mao Zedong. The grid does not have any special, profound meaning here. It shows how a grid can be used to paint an image, which was a method used in creating political propaganda paintings during the Cultural Revolution to enlarge small images without a projector. The letters ‘A’ and ‘O’ are vowels from the pinyin word ‘MAO’. So the printed font of the letters and the horizontal and vertical grid represent the artist’s desire to judge and think about history, culture, and images with a rational spirit.
VOICE-OVER: The styles represented in the ’85 New Wave varied, a reflection of the movement’s breadth and complexity. The exhibition China/Avant-Garde, held in 1989, represented a climax for the movement, as well as its symbolic end.
WU MO: [Mandarin] The two works I am introducing today were once displayed at China/Avant-Garde in February 1989. This first one is artist Geng Jianyi’s The Second State. It is a set of four oil paintings. Geng Jianyi depicted four men's faces with exaggerated laughing expressions. We cannot see details like their neck, hair, or ears. Because of this, these four faces are like four masks gradually emerging from the black background. The artist made special effort to depict how the facial features are distorted and squeezed due to the exaggerated laughing expression, so as to give you a strong visual sense of oppression. The artist intentionally removed facial features that could showcase a person’s character, thereby further removing a sense of narrative and encouraging you to only focus on the behaviour of laughing itself, instead of exploring the motive and meaning behind the laughter. Actually, since 1985, many Chinese artists started attempting to remove narrative elements from their creations, leaning more towards conceptual creative methods.
Now the second artist I’d like to introduce is Huang Yong Ping, another well-known figure who embraced this conceptual creative method. Here before us is one of the representative works of his career: Six Small Turntables. We can see these six turntables are placed concentrically in an open, rectangular black leather case, arranged in order of size with the smallest on top. On the interior of the open side of the case, we can also see a photo of the work with annotations made by the artist on how each turntable was used. Each turntable was used as a standard to determine the conditions for creating a painting, such as when to start painting it, or what material should be used. Through allowing the turntables to intervene as a tool in his creative process, Huang Yong Ping put his own creativity and authorship as an artist into the hands of chance and nature. This work was influenced by French artist Marcel Duchamp and Zen Buddhism. He believed that artmaking should be left to chance and resisted the strong tendency of self-expression in the ’85 New Wave.
VOICE-OVER: Section Three: ‘The 1990s: From Absence to Presence’. Protests in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the Cold War, and globalisation took hold. In China, after the period of reform and opening-up, rapid economic growth propelled the country towards an international market economy. When the market reappeared in the 1990s, it became the means by which art was liberated from the propaganda machinery of the state, and by which artists gained financial and creative independence. Contemporary Chinese art consistently appeared in large-scale international exhibitions, enabling it to be ‘discovered’ in a global, post–Cold War context.
WU MO: [Mandarin] When you enter the exhibition, the first work you will see is this oil painting by Fang Lijun: 1995.2. We can see the artist created a remarkably vivid figure. He is a bald man in a pink shirt with his back towards us and his face towards a vast blue body of water. Between the man and the water are three almost identical old bald men in green shirts, standing in a row. The presence of these three men is somewhat baffling. It’s as if they’ve just emerged from the water and formed a confrontational relationship with the man in the foreground. There is a sharp colour contrast in this painting, with a strong tension between pink, green, and blue. The relationship between the figures symbolises the confrontation between history and the present, idealism and reality. The artist also expresses a profound sense of helplessness in the face of experiencing reality and the loss of an ideal. With Fang Lijun as its representative figure, this style was named Cynical Realism. It became widely known in the 1990s and heralded a new creative trend in Chinese contemporary art of the 1990s.
When we reach the other side of Skylight Gallery, we can see how other artists used distinctly different styles to depict the tension between historical memory and real life. This oil painting before us was created by artist Zhang Xiaogang. Bloodline—Big Family No. 17 was inspired by an old photo he discovered at home. In the painting, he depicted a family portrait, including a father, a mother, and their daughter and son. We can see the parents were mainly painted in a cold grey, while the children's faces are pale yellow and red, forming a distinct colour contrast in the image. A faint yellow patch is seen on each figure's face, and between them are thin red lines that connect this group of people together. This thin red line remind us of the familial concept of bloodlines, or the interpersonal relationship constructed by collectivism. But this sort of collectivism was impacted by social changes in the 1990s. The artist wanted to express the sense of confusion and loss inflicted on people after this old historical relationship ruptured. Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang are representative of the artists who participated in multiple large international exhibitions, serving as an entry point into Chinese contemorary art for the international art world and shaping the mainstream impression of Chinese contemporary art abroad.
VOICE-OVER: Political Pop is the rendering of politics into Pop Art. It can also be seen as a reflection of a sense of political absurdity that Chinese artists felt as they witnessed the infiltration of Western consumerist culture into socialist China brought about by its reforms. Reconstructing political motifs with a satirical pop language, Political Pop artists often appropriated and collaged images derived from Mao-era propaganda art and state ideology. This approach gave artists a new way to respond to the changing political and social landscape of the 1990s.
ISABELLA TAM: [Cantonese] Behind me is Zhou Tiehai's Press Conference III, created in 1996. This work is very different in style from many of the elite artworks of the 1990s. You can see that the artist used metaphor and a straightforward approach to express how the international media and international market analyses and misinterpret Chinese contemporary art. So, you can see that the newspapers the artist uses in this work are English-language newspapers covered in golden paint, which has commercial implications. Against the golden background are eight flags representing different countries, particularly Western countries. The artist also inserted himself into the image as a spokesperson for the art world making a declaration on a podium. This declaration likens the diplomatic relations in the art world to the relationship between countries during the Cold War. As you can see, he used English to connect with the foreign world. You will also notice the work’s huge, dramatic method, which resembles the techniques in big-character posters and promotional slogans, relics of Chinese tradition and the Cultural Revolution.
In Zhou Tiehai’s later series, titled Fake Covers, you’ll see that he appropriated the covers of many famous international magazines, such as ARTnews and Time magazine. So you can see that in Zhou Tiehai's work, traditional words and images are deconstructed and reconstructed into a new language. This challenged the way Chinese contemporary art was commonly understood by the public during the 1990s.
VOICE-OVER: Section Four: ‘Inside Outside: East Village’. Like its namesake in New York, the Beijing East Village on the outskirts of Beijing was a thriving artistic community in the early 1990s. Despite its brief existence, the East Village saw the creation of important radical and experimental performance works, signalling a new direction in performance art that would continue throughout the 1990s.
Section Five: ‘Facing Change’. From Beijing to the Pearl River Delta, as cities grew at breakneck speed, the transition from a rural to an urban society opened a chasm between rich and poor. These patterns of urbanisation continued through the 2010s, and artists took them as a source of inspiration. Moreover, examining everyday life also became a way for artists to question social norms and social regulations. They collapsed the boundary between art and life and connected individual experiences with the wider public.
ISABELLA TAM: [Cantonese] When we talk about urbanisation, it is often about the new and old, and very dynamic things. But Yin Xiuzhen chose to only focus on the daily lives of a group of elderly people. This questions whether the old and the new can coexist in urbanisation. To create a sense of presence, Yin Xiuzhen specially took chairs from the street and brought them into the museum to put on display. I think this series by Yin Xiuzhen is focused on people.
It creates a good dialogue with Liang Shuo's Urban Peasants. While ordinary people's lives are all affected by urbanisation, we also see the so-called marginalised people of urbansiation: rural migrants. For example, you can see that because these migrants have come to work in the city, in order to follow the fashion trend they are wearing seemingly smart suits. But at the same time, you’ll realise that the outfit doesn't really fit this person well. It feels like he wants to follow the fashion trend, but is still out of style. You will also see that he has no pupils, and his eyes look empty. The whole set of sculptures is very rough; this rough feeling is similar to the ‘scum’ aesthetic often seen in Liang Shuo's works. ‘Scum’ is the aesthetic of the naturally grown and the uncontrollable. He thought this approach fit the identity of the migrants-turned-urbanites.
VOICE-OVER: Section Six: ‘Contemporary Chinese Art in the Global Sphere’. By the early years of the new millennium, contemporary Chinese paintings began to be included in international biennials and museum exhibitions. In reaction, artists experimented with installation, performance, photography, and video. They used these mediums to enter into conversation with the global scene on new terms. The course of internationalisation has led China to become a powerful centre within the global art landscape.
ISABELLA TAM: [Cantonese] Behind me is a 2005 embroidery installation by Hu Xiaoyuan, titled A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away. In this set of ten works made up of twenty embroidery pieces, Hu Xiaoyuan uses her hair as the thread. Hair—which in ancient times was a private token lovers gave to each other to signal fidelity—she uses this as her raw material. She also uses white silk, a material that has sad implications, as her canvas. Additionally, embroidery is a creative outlet dominated by women. These pattens are paired with alluring body parts; On one hand, she is giving voice to a very personal, private emotion, a form of feminine sexual desire. And on the other, you’ll see she used traditional patterns to scrutinise the traditional norms and expectations imposed on women. You can see how Hu Xiaoyuan and her contemporaries, in the context of global art in the twenty-first century, examine and reinterpret tradition in their works.
VOICE-OVER: Section Seven: ‘Image and Text’. We use images and text to make sense of physical, social, and cultural dimensions of the world in which we live. Every day, we consume and filter advertisements, political messages, and other kinds of information. Images paired with catchy phrases on posters projected a system of universal socialist values in China. This intricate interplay of images and texts began with political propaganda and evolved as society transitioned towards its commercially driven present. Artists saw value in the approach and incorporated calligraphy, advertising techniques, and tools of mass communication into their work.
You may be moved by underground artists’ courage and ingenuity, or impressed by the Cynical Realist artists’ success in their artistic explorations and in gaining a foothold in the global art market. But some of you may also say: ‘I don’t understand what they’re doing!’ As collector Dr Uli Sigg has put it: ‘Contemporary art is not your good friend.’ Appreciating contemporary art requires an open mind, as [the works] not only reflect reality, but can also be critical of it. [They] may even rub salt into the wound. But to cultivate such an open mind, you simply need to see more.